Foreword to European Space Directory 2016
At the start of a new space age
The European Space Agency (ESA) is entering a new phase in which space has become a day-to-day business, involving new actors and efforts. Current global challenges, such as migration, climate change, demographic developments and disasters, not only raise fears and concerns but also bring with them a responsibility to intervene to produce positive outcomes for the populations directly concerned. ESA offers its observation capabilities to act on the negative effects of these global challenges, trying to yield something useful for the future of countries under stress.
Space can be used to achieve a great deal, and we are trying to act in that sense. In particular, from the starting point of curiosity as an important part of contemporary society, space can provide information and support communication, while also sustaining science and education and providing inspiration.
An example of this would be the discussion about the possible existence of a planet beyond Pluto in our Solar System, bigger than Earth. Obviously this is neither a concrete problem, nor would its solution produce benefits in the short term, but this is an important part of our activity because our curiosity provides an incredible opportunity for new research.
At the same time, space-based observations can produce very positive effects for everyday life. In some cases, there is also a clear return on investment, such as in telecommunications or satellite navigation systems, for example. In 2016, we will continue to build Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation system, with the launch of six more satellites from the European Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, set to join the existing satellites in orbit. With more than one third of the constellation up and running, Galileo early services are expected by the end of the year.
Already this year, we’ve taken steps forward in telecommunications, with the launch in January of the first part of our European Data Relay System (EDRS). EDRS is ESA’s most ambitious telecoms programme yet. Dubbed the ‘SpaceDataHighway’, EDRS will significantly speed up the flow of information between the low-Earth orbit satellites and their ground stations, improving the reaction times of a wide range of activities.
Not all the benefits of space activities, however, can be calculated in purely economic terms. Sometimes the return on investment may not be apparent immediately. This is the case with climate change. The observation and monitoring of these dynamics by our satellites - over half of the relevant parameters can be observed directly from space - have a return on investment that can only be considered in the long term.
This year will see ESA’s Earth Observation programme launch of up to four more Sentinel satellites. These spacecraft are part of a six-mission programme, with each mission made up of a two-satellite constellation looking at a specific area of interest. The Sentinels are the space element of Copernicus, an initiative headed by the European Commission (EC) in partnership with ESA and the world’s biggest Earth observation programme to date. The Sentinels provide accurate, timely and easily accessible information to improve the management of the environment, understand and mitigate the effects of climate change and ensure civil security.
Another such area is space debris. There are more than 600 000 objects larger than one centimetre travelling faster than a bullet around our planet. This requires a strong commitment and serious research in order to deal with all the threats from orbital waste.
Another discussion taking place is around launchers. For now we have Vega, Soyuz and Ariane 5ECA. We are now looking to form a new family of launchers, sharing commonalities, consisting of Vega C and Ariane 6 that will represent the core of our way to the future.
As the experience of Elon Musk and SpaceX has shown, there is risk involved in achieving results and innovation. Europe’s Rosetta mission embraced such risks, obtaining truly remarkable results and inspiring the entire world in 2014 with its encounter with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in the process.
Our Rosetta comet chaser will be in the news again this year, almost two years after Philae’s historic landing on the comet. At the end of September, the Rosetta orbiter will make a controlled landing on the comet’s surface with all instruments active to get as much data possible after observing the complete cycle of a comet in our Solar System.
European heritage is characterised by democracy, human rights, diverse national cultures, philosophy and the arts, but also very importantly by science and engineering. We have also made our mark through our exploration endeavours and pioneering spirit. This is at the root of our desire to deepen our knowledge of the planets, such as Venus, Mercury and Mars.
In 2005, the Mars Express mission detected the presence of liquid water on the Red Planet. Now we have the ExoMars missions in collaboration with Roscosmos, the Russian state corporation for space activities. On 14 March, we will have the first launch of ExoMars and the landing in October of its descent module Schiaparelli, containing a robotic lander, on the martian surface.
Exomars 2016 will gather information and test key technologies for the second part of the mission in 2018, when a European rover will drill up to two metres into the martian surface looking for traces of organic molecules that would indicate the presence of past or present life on Mars.
The inclination to explore is part of our European culture. The ‘Cold War’ had involved space as part of its global competition, but today we are outside this perspective of contest and frictions. We support an International Space Station (ISS) cooperating with the national agencies of USA, Russia, Japan and Canada. International missions in space with all the relevant actors can help avoid political frictions.
So in 2016, as always, ESA astronauts will play a full role in the running of the ISS. The first British ESA astronaut to visit the Space Station, Tim Peake, will be returning in June after a six-month mission. Then in November, the youngest member of our astronaut corps, Thomas Pesquet of France, will be travelling on a Soyuz spacecraft to take his turn aboard the Space Station.
But what is next? There are a lot of projects developed in strong cooperation with our partners. We are working on the Orion European Service Module, produced by ESA in Europe, supporting an international mission promoted by NASA. We are considering the opportunity to reach new destinations, such as Mars, from pole position.
There are a lot of challenges for a journey to Mars but the inspiration of this chance allows a stronger motivation to develop a lot of things: new propulsion techniques, new security and safety systems, and innovative technologies, as well as human factors, life sciences or psychology. The most worrying aspect would be the radiation to which astronauts would be exposed in a journey of two years beyond Earth’s protective magnetic shield.
Looking further ahead, beyond the Space Station, I would like to underline some goals and demands. More efforts are required in both human and robotic spaceflight, STEM, outreach, planetary defence, logistics, public-private partnerships, lunar science and many others. Now is time to choose what kind of missions can better fulfil these requirements. I suggest two possible answers: frequent Earth-orbit activities and international exploration of the Moon.
The first option would allow us to improve and increase the research we do in microgravity. In the second, to be deployed immediately after the ISS will have come to an end in 2024, we may collectively develop sustainable moon surface operations in the context of a ‘moon village’. This is not to be interpreted literally, like a ‘settlement’ of houses or streets, but rather as the ‘stepping stone’ for stable and continuous research, a system of collective effort and various capabilities (robotics, manned activities, telecommunications, etc.) from the spacefaring countries of the world.
One of the most common arguments used against the increase of funds for space activities is that the costs that would be too high and, in many cases, would not generate a return of the investment. Here are some figures to show how money is really spent in space by Europe. The total expenditure on space in Europe each year per citizen equals what they would spend on 10 litres of fuel. For satellite navigation, we spend less than the cost of one beer in a year per citizen, while in human spaceflight, we spend less than the equivalent of a bus ticket per citizen in a year.
All in all we are definitely not spending enough money for challenges that are so big for humankind, especially when we are living in a new era where space has become a day-to-day business and has become an essential part of our society, and where the commercialisation of space, international cooperation and industry all play vital roles.